SuperPops is plenty jazzy, if not quite in synch Music review

September 19, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As composer-conductor Marvin Hamlisch noted at the start of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's first SuperPops concert of the season, jazz is America's gift to music.

Think about it. Though little more than a century old, it has changed music forever: its rhythms, its harmonies, its colors, the way it transforms instruments and voices are now part of our common vocabulary. And all because Scott Joplin brought ragtime out of the bordellos of Storyville, the New Orleans red-light district.

The first SuperPops (which has three more performances at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall this weekend) pays tribute to the jazz heritage by featuring the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on one half and baritone Jubilant Sykes in spirituals and various American -- songs on the other.

Sykes, who hails from Southern California, says he was inspired to sing by recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. And his

phenomenal voice, with its range, purity and multihued expressiveness, has the same love for each song as the German baritone had for Lieder.

JTC Sykes brought out the poetry of hymns, the unshakable faith of spirituals and, in a nonsense song like "I Bought Me a Cat," from Aaron Copland's "Old American Songs," played gleefully with the animal noises of duck, cow and pig.

The Copland section also included "Simple Gifts," the Shaker hymn, and "At the River," a revival meeting standard -- though Sykes' shining delivery was anything but standard. Unfortunately, Hamlisch lost many of the pungent harmonies and quirky off- rhythms of Copland's arrangements with his poor baton technique.

For spirituals, Sykes bypassed the conventional and performed, instead, "Pilgrim of Sorrow" (with a delicate harp accompaniment played by Eileen Mason); "Ain't I a Witness?" in a stark unaccompanied setting; and "Mary, Did You Know?"

His careful way with the text and a glorious finish almost -- but not quite -- saved "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" from the sludgy symphonic soup supplied by the orchestra, which seemed to be inspired by the soundtrack to "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

The six-man Preservation Hall Jazz Band delivered its trademark performance after intermission. The players' sound is deliberately unblended; they play with a kind of edged, astringent musical comradeship that brings out their singularity. The only knock-down, drag-'em-out ensemble piece is its signature tune, "When the Saints Go Marchin' In."

The members at this time are Wendell Brunious, trumpet; David Griller, clarinet; Frank Demond, trombone; Benjamin Jaffe, bass; Joseph Lastie Jr., drums; and Thaddeus Richard, piano. (He plays an upright opened to show the hammers and dampers at work, perhaps paying homage to the player pianos of the ragtime days.) The sixth player steals the show: 88-year-old Narvin Kimball, who plays a mellow banjo and sings, not always on key but quite affectingly.

I'm not much for the combination of jazz band and orchestra, which has never struck me as being useful to one or the other. Either the orchestra plays nothing of consequence, or it overwhelms the band with saccharin, as in the spirituals. At a certain point, I wish the BSO had ceded the stage to the band and just let those wise and wily New Orleans veterans go to town.

SuperPops with the BSO

What: Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Jubilant Sykes, baritone, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

When: 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $23-$55

Call: 410-783-8000

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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